The Zero Theorem
Terry Gilliam's first science fiction film since "12 Monkeys" is an inventively designed but oddly inert satire on technology, God and the future of humankind.
Q. Sadly, Studs has left this world. But he leaves behind a huge footprint and will always reside nearby, on the nearest bookshelf and through the frequencies of freethinkers. How unfortunate it is he was not here to witness election day. But his last laugh is on us. Studs leaves to perform the greatest of all Chicago traditions, casting his final vote from the grave. Chuck Canning, Antioch, Ill.
A. Studs was an atheist. It would have had to be an absentee ballot.
Q. I was delighted to see TCM playing several classic horror films like "Cat People," "Freaks" and "The Thing from Another World," which I DVR'd with the intention of having a night-long classic horror fest on Halloween. But on the big night, all my guests booed the idea of a black & white playlist and left shortly after. Is there something I can do to get people excited about seeing these movies or do I just need to seek out new friends for movie night? Chris Kelley, Ill.
A. These people are not your friends. Even how you word your question indicates you will never be happy with them. No one who dislikes b&w should be allowed to view a motion picture.
Q. So I went over to a friend's house and caught him watching "The Departed" on DVD. Looking at Matt Damon, I noticed something was amiss. Bingo! it's the full-screen pan-and-scan version of the DVD. My "evils of full-screen" diatribe ensued and then my wife asked: Couldn't the director have it written into their contract that the aspect ratio of their film will not be tampered with, neither for DVDs nor television? Surely a guy like Scorsese has the kind of weight to throw around to make such a clause a reality. Right? Frank Multari, Cleveland, Tenn.
A. Right. Somebody's head will roll at Warner Bros. because of this. The No. 45 film on the IMDb all-time Top 100? Chopped and diced? Michael Ballhaus' elegant compositions? Desecrated? Unthinkable. An outrage! Return your DVD for a refund. Picket Blockbuster. Refuse it from Netflix.
Q. In "The Dark Knight," there's a sound that plays before each scene involving The Joker. It's a mixture between an orchestra tuning and a bee buzzing. When I saw this with my father, he actually thought the sound system was malfunctioning. Then, while watching "The Shining," I noticed a similar sound playing as a crazed Jack Nicholson begins to unravel. As a musician, I am intrigued. Are you familiar with this sound effect? I'm wondering if it's used more often than I realize -- like the Wilhelm Scream. Geoff Hayward, Wakefield, R.I.
A. I consulted Jeff Joseph of SabuCat Productions, who explained the immortal Scream. He says Jack Theakston, his 3-D archive chief researcher, says: "I haven't seen 'TDK' yet, but I'm familiar with "The Shining." The 'buzzing' sound effect can be done a number of ways through audio filtration, sometimes by flanging recordings of strings. Usually this is done in the studio by 'teasing' the strings as well -- dragging the bow across the string lighter than normal. There's also an instrument that really does sound like that -- the Australian Aborigine didgeridoo, which is technically a reed instrument, but has physical characteristics similar to brass. Listening to 'TDK's' soundtrack, however, I think your friend is hearing just a droning of the string section, usually sliding up in semitones. A similar effect was put to great use in the tone music in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974).
Q. I read your comments on the red-band trailers. I'm not offended by these trailers, but sympathize with people who may be. This practice indicates the studios feel that if you're interested in seeing R-rated content in one type of film, you don't mind seeing other R-rated content. This is like assuming you like wasabi because you like cayenne. Filmgoers should be able to decide based on the expected content of that film, without worrying about the trailers. Years back, underage students were being allowed to accompany their teachers to viewings of "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List." Would a viewing of those films be marred by a raunchy sex comedy? This isn't censorship. It's a matter of courtesy to filmgoers who choose to see one type of film and not another. Ethan Shuster, Auburn, Mass.
A. Agreed, The red band is like a wing nut holding up a "Don't listen!" sign while screaming at you.
Q. What is the conservative moviegoer's attitude toward applause for a movie in a theater? A friend of mine says that it (especially at the end of the film) is a useless and embarrassing gesture, and thinks I should discourage my young sons from doing it -- but I feel that it's entirely appropriate to applaud if your heart tells you to applaud, and the goodwill surely reverberates back to the filmmakers somehow. Posted on my blog by St. Clair, N.J.
A. Listen to your heart. Applause at a movie isn't intended for the filmmakers so much as for your fellow audience members. It means: Clap on this, you dipsticks. It was great, and I'm right, and you're not.
Q. This is a theoretical question. Would you support an accomplished screenwriter being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature? Say, for example, Woody Allen? As film has become the dominant art form of our time, I've thought such an award, especially for a writer like Allen with global reach, would be justified. Sandy Bates, Ann Arbor, Mich.
A. Absolutely. They give the prize to dramatists, after all. The first screenwriting Nobel should have gone to Bergman. Allen would agree. I also advocate extending the Pulitzers to film. I proposed this as an op-ed in the New York Times, which was vociferously cheered by those who had absolutely nothing to do with the Pulitzers.
Q. Tell me why end credits are run in reverse in lice-type and rolled so fast as to defy readership. It's bad enough in the theater but on poor folks' TVs, they're impossible to read. I'm deliriously happy to find who the drivers and caterers and insurers are but would really like to know who some of the actors were. Jack Lane, New Buffalo, Mich.
A. The lice type is to cope with the endless stream of credits, which have now been joined (as Peter Debruge observed in Variety) by three, four, five different company logos at the start of a movie. Everybody wants a thumb in the pie. Movies seem to spend half their time introducing themselves and the rest backing out the door.
In your remark about actors, you've really hit the nail on the head. In the classic days, a movie would actually open with a cast of characters right after the title. Now they open with no credits at all, except for the logos of LakeshorePyramidLionsgateDimension. You spend the movie wondering who that actor was in the minotaur makeup. When you arrive at the end burning with curiosity, you find out who the honeywagon driver and Second Second Assistant Director were, until grudgingly they confess the names of AngelinaMerylHalleBrad.
Q. Richard Dreyfuss, who portrays Vice President Cheney in Oliver Stone's "W.," appeared on "The View" and said he didn't like working with Stone, although their politics are similar. He was quoted: "You can be a fascist even when you're on the left." Do you agree? Eric Robert Wilkinson, Seattle
A. I think he was trying to overload Elisabeth Hasselbeck's circuitry and force her into shutdown mode.
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A photo gallery offering snapshots from The Ebert Dinner at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
An appreciation of David Lynch's "Eraserhead" on the release of the film on Criterion Collection Blu-ray.